FRY, Alan (1931- )




Author Tags: Alcohol, Cariboo, Essentials 2010, Fiction, First Nations

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

The importance of Federal Indian Agent Alan Fry’s novel How a People Die (1970) has gradually been glossed over. Whistleblowers are seldom cited as heroes, but when it was published, Alan Fry’s first-hand reportage on social decay in Indian reserves in the form of a novel, along with Cree leader Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society (1969), ushered in a new era of realistic writing about Canada’s First Nations.

How a People Die concerns the death of an infant named Annette Joseph on the fictitious Kwatsi Reserve, a collection of shabby houses strewn with empty bottles. Examining the unsanitary conditions surrounding the death, RCMP Corporal Thompson, a veteran of 15 years on the force, takes the controversial measure of charging the infant’s parents with criminal neglect. The question soon arises among the characters of the story as to who should be held blameworthy for the tragedy. “Tell us how a people die,” says one of the aboriginal characters, “and we can tell you how a people live.”

Fry’s hard-hitting novel, in the aftermath of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe at the Vancouver Playhouse, forced British Columbians to wake up to the plight of marginalized aboriginals, but Fry was branded a racist for his assertion that “alcoholism is an inheritable disease and Indian people inherit it to a greater extent than do non-Indians.” After more than 20 years working in northern and central B.C., including 15 years as an Indian agent, and three more realistic novels about life in the B.C. Interior, Fry quit working for the Department of Indian Affairs out of frustration and settled in the Yukon in 1974.

Alan Fry was born in 1931 and raised on a family ranch near Lac La Hache, B.C. His introduction to a reissued edition of How a People Die contains an amalgam of statistical evidence of violence and familial dysfunction among First Nations. “It is my firm conviction that the succession of increasingly destructive lifestyles [on Indian reserves] can be traced back to the end of liquor prohibition to status Indians in the decade following the Second World War,” he writes. Fry divulges he was himself an alcoholic and also relates an incident from his boyhood when an aboriginal male teenager tried to cajole him into a sexual encounter in the woods.

To further his contention that dependency on alcohol can be overcome, he cites the example of the Alkali Lake Band in the Chilcotin, southwest of Williams Lake, that managed successfully to prohibit alcohol in its midst, as initiated largely by Phyllis and Andy Chelsea and recorded in the community-produced film The Honour of All: The Story of Alkali Lake.

Fry objects to “the brutal treatment of so many women and children by their men. . . . Indian self-government must not be so structured that women and children living under such a government have less protection than is afforded to other Canadian citizens by other levels of government.”


FULL ENTRY:

Alan Fry's significance in B.C.'s literary history lies in his accurate and sometimes humourous portrayals of life on B.C. Indian reserves and the corresponding inflexibility of white officials, including police. Some of his titles have been reprinted but Fry's literary reputation has faded due to the constraints of 'political correctness'. "After the appearance of How A People Die," he once wrote. "I was branded a racist for merely implying that alcoholism is an inheritable disease and that Indian people inherit it to a greater extent than do non-Indians."

Fry's first and best-known novel, How A People Die (Doubleday, 1970; Harbour, 1994), ushered in a new era of realistic writing about Canada's native people. It concerns the death of an infant named Annette Joseph on the fictitious Kwatsi Reserve, a collection of shabby houses strewn with empty bottles. Examining the unsanitary conditions surrounding the death, RCMP Corporal Thompson, a veteran of 15 years on the force, takes the controversial measure of charging the infant's parents with criminal neglect. The question soon arises among the characters of the story as to who should be held blameworthy for the tragedy. "Tell us how a people die," says one of the Indian characters, "and we can tell you how a people live." In the aftermath of George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967) and Cree leader Harold Cardinal's The Unjust Society (1969), Fry's hard-hitting novel forced society as a whole to consider the plight of marginalized Aboriginals. The editor of the novel, Doug Gibson, has commented in a letter to Alan Twigg: "The title, as I recall, came in ready-made from him, and I never queried it. Until, that is, the book was out and doing well, and I was visiting bookseller Bill Duthie in his store downtown, and he started to tease me gently about having an ungrammatical title. He was right, of course, but for most of us, the immediate link of the plural verb with a noun that normally is plural was enough to make it slip by unnoticed. So Bill was right, but Alan Fry, seeking colloquial punch, was right, too, I think. And the courage of an Indian Affairs guy, working in the field, writing such a novel, was extraordinary, and I realised that right from the start. Can you imagine such a thing
today? The only sad part about Howie White and Harbour Publishing re-issuing that book is that the problems outlined in the novel have continued to be recognisable more than 30 years later."

How A People Die was followed by three more novels about life in the B.C. wilderness, The Revenge of Annie Charlie, Come A Long Journey and The Burden of Adrian Knowle.

Alan Fry was born and raised on a family ranch near Lac La Hache, B.C. in 1931. Although some of his ancestors were farming Quakers in Wiltshire, his grandfather Roger Fry, a member of the Fry family that prospered in the chocolate business, was a Cambridge graduate who kept company with the Bloomsbury Group. Alan Fry contends his own father immigrated to the B.C. interior to escape Roger Fry's shadow. After more than 20 years working in northern B.C., including 15 years as an Indian agent, Alan Fry quit working for the Department of Indian Affairs out of frustration and settled in the Yukon in 1974. In Whitehorse he co-authored Wilf Taylor's memoir Beating Around the Bush: A Life in the Northern Bush (Harbour, 1989). Fry is also the author of The Ranch on the Cariboo (republished by Touchwood Editions), first published in 1962, about a teenager's introduction to manhood and ranching in the early 1940s, and the Survival in the Wilderness (1981), having lived in a teepee in the Yukon. The latter describes techniques and equipment required to survive emergencies in the wilderness.

Fry's introduction to a re-issued edition of How A People Die contains an amalgam of statistical evidence of violence and familial dysfunction among First Nations. "It is my firm conviction that the succession of increasingly destructive lifestyles [on Indian reserves] can be traced back to the end of liquor prohibition to status Indians in the decade following the Second World War," he writes. Fry divulges he was an alcoholic and also relates a disturbing incident from his boyhood when an Indian male teenager tried to cajole him into a sexual encounter in the woods. To further his contention that dependency on alcohol can be overcome, he cites the example of the Alkali Lake Band in the Chilcotin, southwest of Williams Lake, that managed to successfully prohibit alcohol in its midst, as initiated largely by Phyllis and Andy Chelsea and recorded in the community-produced film The Honour of All: The Alkali Lake Story. Fry writes, "...the time has come to spell out clearly that primary responsibility for recovery lies with the people themselves. Past injustice is not the issue... Put bluntly, all the injustice done by the wider Canadian community to the people of mixed heritage we all Aboriginal--and that injustice has been at times both grievous and enormous--does not excuse, nor indeed explain, the brutal treatment of so many women and children by their men... Indian self-government must not be so structured that women and children living under such a government have less protection than is afforded to other Canadian citizens by other levels of government."

[For more B.C. authors who have written about alcohol, see abcbookworld entries for Allen, Harold; Anderson, Frank; Audain, James; Campbell, Robert A.; Cutler, Ron; Dawe, Alan; Dawson, Kimberley Rose; Hamilton, Douglas; Givton, Albert; Gough, Lyn; Graefe, Sara; Hagelund, William A.; Hodgson, Kenji; Lemert, E.M.; Miles, Fraser; Milton, Lorraine; Mooy, Lyn; Newsome, Eric; Parker, Marion; Patrick, Carmen; Ruskin, Olga; Sager, Ed; Schreiner, John; Seyd, Jane; Stone, Jim; Strachan, J. George; Tod, John; Townsin, Troy; Wenzel, Jan-Udo.] @2010.

BOOKS:

The Ranch on the Cariboo (Doubleday 1962; Touchwood)

How A People Die (Doubleday, 1970; Harbour, 1994).

Come A Long Journey (Doubleday, 1971)

The Revenge of Annie Charlie (Doubleday, 1973; Harbour, 1990).

The Burden of Adrian Knowle (Doubleday, 1974).

Survival in the Wilderness (Toronto: Macmillan, 1981), aka Wilderness Survival Handbook: A Practical, All-Season Guide To Short-Trip Preparation And Survival Techniques For Hikers, Skiers, Backpackers, Canoeists... (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981).

Taylor, Wilf & Alan Fry. Beating Around the Bush: A Life in the Northern Bush (Harbour, 1989).

[BCBW 2011]